Two nights in Texas

Kate Campbell
Kate Campbell

Mississippi-born singer songwriter Kate Campbell intruded into my awareness in the late ‘90s, and since then, each lyrical and patently Southern album she releases is a must-own in my limited collection.

On Sept. 27, she released her latest, a live album called “Two Nights in Texas,” with recordings from back-to-back shows April 8-9, 2010, at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas.

The 14 tracks showcase Campbell’s diverse range of styles and topics, although all are grounded firmly in the red clay of Dixie.

Her repertoire, while not exclusively ballads, tells stories. I had the opportunity to hear Kate explain her songwriting process back in 2005 at a conference in San Antonio. That peek behind the curtain has helped me hear the stories she tells even as I tap my foot or sing along.

Of course, I’m partial to “New South,” a 2002 song chronicling the obvious as well as the subtle changes to southern living that indicate even tradition-laden Southerners are evolving. The version on “Two Nights” is a little more up-tempo, and the dobro gives it a rich sound.

A compelling element to the album is a seamless medley called “The Steal Away Trilogy.” At a little more than eight minutes, the piece includes her songs “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” “Peace Comes Stealing Slow” and “Steal Away.”

As a fellow preacher’s kid, I resonate with the way she weaves deeply spiritual themes into her stories, letting hymns, Southern gospel and spirituals infuse and inform her music. I like that I can put the windows down and turn up the car stereo, as she suggests, and crank out “See Rock City” or mull the truths of “10,000 Lures” in mellow contemplation.

Of “10,000 Lures” Kate says from the stage: “My mama said ‘I believe that song could go in the Baptist hymnal.’ I said ‘I don’t believe the word ‘voodoo has ever been in the Baptist hymnal.’”

Two Nights in Texas album coverThough I’ve heard it dozens of times, I’m still haunted by “Crazy in Alabama,” and this rendition is a good one. The story of the Fall of Adam gets a Mississippi Delta reinterpretation in “Genesis Blues.” Your heart will melt when you remember your old home place as Kate reminisces on “Tupelo’s Too Far,” and I defy you to listen to “Look Away” without feeling a pang of regret at how insidious the snare of racism has been in the South.

As I’ve previously stated in this space, I’m more of a writer than a musician, but unlike some singer songwriters, Kate has a beautiful voice that can lilt or twang depending on the context. And on this album, the very accomplished musicians accompanying her deserve credit, including Sally Van Meter on dobro, Scott Ainslie on guitar and Don Porterfield
on bass.

If you’ve had the misfortune of missing out on Kate’s music this long, I urge you to start with this live album. Kate spins a good story with or without music, and her comments captured on the album will give you a taste of her colorful personality, eye for telling details and sharp wit.

After you’ve soaked in “Galaxie 500,” “Free World,” “Cotton Field Away,” “Jesus and Tomatoes” and the rest, you’ll be ready to appreciate her broad discography. My recommendation: Listen to “Two Nights in Texas” for a few weeks, then go and buy everything she’s ever recorded.

I promise the experience will make you wiser and more in tune with Southern culture in all its expressions.

I Gotta Go … listen to Robert Earl Keen

I’m a writer, not a musician. That’s the best way to explain my fascination with country music – specifically, alternative country and the work of singer-songwriters. I’m not much of a fan of that over-produced, impure sound coming out of Nashville the last 10-20 years.

Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen

A few years ago, my native-Texan friend, Bob, introduced me to the music of Robert Earl Keen. Texas-born and Texas-bred, Keen’s knack for storytelling outstrips his singing ability, so naturally, I immediately took to his music.

On Tuesday, Keen released his latest album, “Ready for Confetti,” with the pre-released  single “I Gotta Go.”

This album has a different feel than Keen’s previous work. The imagery-rich ballads such as the evocative “Black Baldy Stallion” and “I Gotta Go” are still there, but overall, the pace was slower and the mood more subdued. It’s as if Keen, 55, is slowing down after 30 years in the music business, and he thinks the world needs to slow down, too.

The title cut, “Ready for Confetti,” has a Latin flair, and if I knew the steps to one, I might be tempted to do a Latin dance. “I Gotta Go” reminds me the most of his other work. The story of an orphan who steals and gambles his way right into more and more trouble, “I Gotta Go” is a toe-tapping tragedy that will lift your spirits even as the lyrics depress. But who among us hasn’t felt upbeat even when faced with certain death?

I can’t help but think the line “I’m wasting time standing here, I gotta go” is also Keen’s not-so-veiled smirk at our over-caffeinated, texting-addicted, hurried society. This is particularly evident when juxtaposed with the next song on the album, the mellow “Lay Down My Brother.” With a little bit slower tempo, this song seems to be encouraging us to “take it easy, take it slow,” an admonition that might help us all live longer.  “Lay Down My Brother” has nice harmonies, which is frankly when Keen sounds the best.

“The Road Goes On and On” is a satisfying insult song that harkens back to one of Keen’s best loved songs “The Road Goes on Forever.” We’ve all encountered phonies who are so full of themselves that we just wanted to cuss. Keen captures the feeling well with such hurtful criticisms as “you’re malicious and downright cruel, superstitious, so uncool,” “you’re a regular jack-in-the-box in your clown suit and your goldilocks” and the coup de gras, “all duded up in your cowboy crocs.” Wow, now that’s a cowboy insult if I ever heard
one.

Ready for Confetti
Ready for Confetti album cover

I’m convinced that “Top Down” is best listened to live. The studio isn’t kind to Keen’s ability to hold pitch, but I admire the fact that it doesn’t sound artificial and over-modulated. Like “The Road Goes On and On,” this jazzy song seems to be poking at the stars who drive around with the “top down” and believe that “everbody’s clapping and it’s all about you.”

If “Top Down” makes you doubt, Keen returns to a familiar sound in “Play a Train Song.” From the opening guitar licks and harmonica strains, you know REK is back on his turf. Anyone familiar with his discography will immediately recognize his nod to the genre of train songs that Keen himself has helped populate over the years with such songs as “Number 9 Coal” and “Whenever Kindness Fails.”

Way back when I worked at The Macon Telegraph, page designer and copy editor Randy Waters and I played a word game we liked to call “Who da’ man?” We would ask each other that question back and forth until those around us demanded we shut up. Well, in “Who Da Man,” Keen turns the question into an adjective as the song proclaims the advantages of being a “Who Da Man,” who is able to evade law enforcement and other life consequences as he somehow sneaks through life.

A Bigger Piece of Sky
A Bigger Piece of Sky album cover

“Paint the Town Beige” is a rerun from 1993’s “A Bigger Piece of Sky” album. I think Keen repeats the song on this album to tell us that he really has slowed down. Keen seems to be saying with this even more laid back version that he craves the quiet life, and he’s put crazy antics behind him.

The final song, “Soul of Man” evokes images of a men’s quartet in a country church on a dusty central Texas farm-to-market road complete with funeral home fans, men in boots and starched white shirts and women in bonnets. “Soul of Man” is Keen’s take on the hymn, “Where the Soul Never Dies,” which has been recorded by a variety of artists, including the Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and even Hank Williams Sr. My fondness for traditional hymns makes this a fitting ending to the album in my mind.

Overall, it’s one of Keen’s most understated works, but enjoyable and meaningful if you find yourself feeling wrung out emotionally and stressed from the busyness of life. In the New South, we could all use a little more time to “lay down” and less “I Gotta Go” urgency.

REK may be an acquired taste for those who like good singing, but for the storytellers of the world, enjoy.